Thousands seek relief at national park work camps

Published on Tuesday, 14 March 2023 07:45

By Ed Stozek
For the Herald

One day in February 2008, I came home and checked the answering machine.

Ninety-one-year-old Henry Hlady left a message asking for my address as he wanted to send me information of his time spent as a relief worker during the Great Depression in the Riding Mountain National Park.

One week later I met Henry at a senior's complex in Brandon.

At the height of the Great Depression, thousands of jobless men were sent to relief camps. With 10 separate camps, Riding Mountain sustained the largest relief camp operation of Canada’s national parks.

The men were housed in old refurbished buildings or new tar and paper shacks constructed when they arrived. Between 1930 and 1936 the relief workers were responsible for erecting 86 buildings including administration and community buildings, garages, warden and staff headquarters. Others helped build highways and made significant improvements in the campgrounds to attract tourists to Canada’s newest national park.

In 1932, single unemployed men registered at the local employment bureau with the hopes of obtaining work for winter projects. In 1932 Henry was 15 years old when he left for his first relief camp job at Rivers. Using a pick and a shovel, wheelbarrows and two teams of horses, the men built about a quarter mile of road before the first snowfall of the year.

“Two months ago, there was hardly any preparation for the army of men that soon trouped into the Clear Lake district. Huts had to be built to house the men and stores erected to look after provisions needed to feed them. Neither was it planned that all of the men be congregated at one large camp. Smaller units were advisable to better carry out works situated near to the camp sites. Programs had to be provided for the men when they arrived, equipment found for the men to work with.” (January 5, 1932, Brandon Daily Sun)

In October 1933, Henry arrived at Camp 7. The first bunkhouse was an old logging camp hut left over by men who cut ties for the railroad. Several weeks later Henry moved to a new bunkhouse that soon filled up with 30 to 40 relief workers. Located on Highway 19 near Whirlpool Lake, Camp No. 7 was seven miles from the Wasagaming headquarters.

Numerous men complained about the housing as the bunkhouses were little more than tar paper shacks heated by a 45-gallon fuel drum cut in half. Henry slept on a straw mattress and shared a double bed. He mentioned that the food was good and the pay was a package of tobacco and $5 per month. All the winter clothes and boots that were needed were also supplied. Henry’s job included cutting and clearing bush on roadways and cutting logs for fencing and sign posts.

At the central camp at Wasagaming a bath house was available with 13 bath tubs. All men from the 10 camps were required to bathe at least once a week. A camp hospital took care of emergency situations. Sanitary arrangements were made for the men to send out their washing at least twice a month. A recreational room was provided at the Wigwam Cafe where there was a great need for cards and checkerboards. Football and hockey provided an outdoor sports opportunity with inter-camp games being played.

On May 14, 1934, it was noted in the Brandon Daily Sun that the winter program exceeded all expectations.

New roads, new buildings, enlargements of tourist accommodations and facilities were all improved upon. Work included construction of a 700-foot pier and expansion of the tourist camp with new streets and lanes cut in the bush. Danceland was torn down and replaced with a filling station. The new Danceland was now located on the west side of the road.

More than 1,200 men worked that winter. Henry was not one of the 525 men who were to be employed during the summer as he left in May and returned to Brandon. He rode the rails to other parts of the country to seek employment.

It was an honour to meet and talk with Henry who shed some interesting personal experiences of working at a relief camp.

Henry Hlady passed away in 2010.

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